Infrared: The Craft Behind the Color


To me, color is the single most important aspect in a design. If the right color is not selected, the consumer will automatically deter from it. It is my honest belief that color is the only thing that makes a shoe successful. Yes, it has to perform, and yes it has to look aesthetically appealing, but if the color is wrong, the product is wrong. I don’t care if the shoe makes you fly, if the consumer doesn’t associate a positive feeling with the color, it’s over.

One thing that proves my belief is our obsession as sneakerheads to label models solely by their color names. Black-Toes, Black-Cements, Bred, Grapes, Powder Blue, Olives, Concords, and the most defining one, Infrared. In a way, the colors are more important than the models themselves, as the colors have come to define the product line in which the shoes were created for. I decided with the overshadowing of the Air Jordan VI Infrared, I would do a little research as to what the history was behind the color. With a color that is so popular and iconic, there has to be some deep-rooted reasoning as to why Nike picked it, right? Well, the truth is no. There is no great reason as to why the color was selected. I talked with Tinker Hatfield about it to get a first hand perspective on the highly saturated color. He told me that the goal of the color was to be a very, very bright contrast compared to what else was going on in the marketplace. Nike was the first company to use such a bold color of red, and the Air Jordan VI was the first basketball shoe within the company to use Infrared. They felt that it added a unique flourish and finish to the product. Another interesting tidbit that I learned is that Infrared wasn’t actually used on the Air Max 90. The original Air Max 90 was officially labeled as Radiant Red. Now if Radiant Red is the exact same red as Infrared and Nike just uses different names for different categories is up for debate.

One thing that I always thought was interesting about Infrared is that it doesn’t really match with the Bulls’ uniforms. Varsity Red and Infrared are at two ends of the spectrum when it comes to the red palette. If not paired properly, the colors would clash immediately. But because Infrared was used in very specific areas of the shoe to help highlight the styling, there was no clashing between Michael’s uniform and the hue on his feet.

One thing that is often taken for granted is just how challenging it is to consistently replicate a color, especially on varying materials. The high saturation of the Infrared makes it nearly impossible to get the shade to look just right on fabrics like suede and nubuck. Especially since infrared was originally created in paint form and has a consistent formula used to make it. Materials like suede and nubuck are particularly challenging to consistently match color with because they have different tones of color within them. Oftentimes red colors tend to look pink on suede and nubuck because they can’t fully absorb the dye to get the right amount of saturation in them. They also tend to bleed and fade profusely and quickly.

When designing a shoe, you don’t always have the choice of choosing what factory your shoe is going to be manufactured in. And because shoes are made globally, and not just in one country or even continent, you have to establish a way of making sure all colors and materials match from one manufacturing facility to another. To help make Infrared consistent globally, a set of masters was created to match to. A master is the end-all be-all of what a color should be. Think the color is too pink? Compare it to the master. Think the color is too blue? Compare it to the master. Is the grain too glossy, making the color shift from angle to angle? Compare it to the master. The master becomes the single most important thing to matching a color.

The “total” Infrared Air Jordan VI is so important because the Jordan Brand battled through the challenges of matching an inconsistent color space to make it consistent in a material outside of paint. This understanding gives all of us the opportunity to celebrate the iconic Infrared color in a way we never have before.

Brett Golliff, footwear extraordinaire, is founder of, contributor for Complex, and has previously designed for New Balance. Check him out on Twitter and Instagram.